Lincoln’s Lincoln is a model built by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, screenwriter Tony Kushner, and actor Daniel Day Lewis, placed into Steven Spielberg’s cinematic Civil War diorama. Lincoln is sad when he’s quiet, constantly mourning. Then he speaks and beams humor and wisdom. His angry moments are calls for action. “We’ve stepped out upon the world stage now! NOW!”
The second scene in Lincoln ends with a black Union soldier reciting the end of the Gettysburg Address (to its author): “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
For the counterpoint, here’s a famous 2001 quote from Republican Grover Norquist: “I don’t want to reduce the size of government, I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” An ethos unveiled.
This movie came out in 2012, around Obama’s reelection, and I needed it.
I’m a cynic. Politicians lied directly to my pen and notebook when I was a newspaper reporter. Now I watch them the way I watch movies like Elmer Gantry and A Face in the Crowd – admiring villainy. Except the real Republicans killing government aren’t charming like Gantry or Lonesome Rhodes; they’re ugly and humorless. It shouldn’t work but it does and it’s fascinating. I’m totally pessimistic.
Lincoln is not biography; it’s about a few months in 1865 when the war ended and Congress passed the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery. He keeps being told that they cannot do both; he keeps insisting that they can. No better argument could be made for government as a force for good.
The biggest scene at the end of Lincoln is not the president’s assassination, which we don’t even see. (How un-Spielbergian.) The biggest moment is the passage of the amendment. It’s men voting. Spielberg even puts away his manipulative music swells as congressmen weep on the house floor, and sing with joy.
It sounds sentimental because it is. Against the backdrop of our darkest days, despite the furious objections of half its citizens, honor in government prevailed. There is hope.